Masonic Service Association of North America
“Change is the one constant and Freemasons have done little to keep pace with change.”
— MIC Task Force
“It’s about time!” When spoken forcefully, the phrase means an action is about to be taken addressing a situation needing immediate attention. Sometimes the words are said softly, “It’s about time; I don’t have any,” thereby making “time” the excuse for doing nothing. How best to illustrate this conclusion?
Since the end of World War II, population figures in North America have soared. Masonic membership increased also until 1959. Since that time, while the general population has had dramatic increases, Masonic membership has dropped.
To further illustrate this trend, the Masonic Service Association (MSA) has tracked membership figures for Masons in the United States since 1925. The numbers tell a very sad tale of the decline of one of the world’s most important fraternal organizations, slowly fading away, as T.S. Elliot says, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”
This chart illustrates the rise and fall of Masonic membership from the 1920s to the year 2003.
Even at our membership’s lowest point in 1941, which included the Depression years (the worst depression in US history), Freemasonry still had 800,000 more members than we do today. In short, Freemasonry is at its lowest membership level in at least 80 years.
Four familiar excuses have frequently been touted as the cause of the decline.
History demonstrates that fraternal membership is always cyclical. Although national membership statistics prior to 1925 are very difficult to compile, the figures that are available clearly show cyclical ups and downs. However, our current membership total is at its lowest point in 80 years. This clearly indicates that the trend is not of a cyclical nature and must be viewed with the clear understanding that other factors are at work.
The Vietnam generation resisted joining traditional mainstream organizations. This was a generation turned off by anyone over 35; to this group, any organization that embraced traditional values was distrusted. However, many years have passed producing diminished membership figures. We have no choice but to conclude the problem runs far deeper than one generation.
Busy lifestyles complicate time commitments. No question about it. Where one spouse used to be the major source of the family’s income, now both spouses work. When they come home in the evening, they want time together rather than separate functions to attend, if indeed there is a desire to participate at all. This clearly means that any organization wishing to attract members must offer something of great interest to even be considered worthwhile.
Joining is no longer fashionable. Clearly true. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam conclusively shows that people simply do not join organizations as they did in the past. Since the World War II generation, volunteering (which is what we do when we join an organization) has become almost nonexistent. Every fraternal organization, many religious denominations, service clubs, and community organizations such as the PTA/PTO have all suffered membership declines.
While these are valid reasons (yes, they did contribute to a decline in membership), we have failed to accept the fact that the world is a different place than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. If you live in a metropolitan area, your 15-minute commute time to work is now 50 minutes—if you are lucky. We spend more time going to and from work than ever before. Current lifestyles often require two spouse incomes. Family time is squeezed into the evenings and very often the children have their own activities. The technology explosion has provided a source for entertainment/activity that competes with any organization requiring a time commitment. In short, change is the one constant. What have Freemasons done to keep pace with change? Very little!
Isn’t it about time to be realistic about our membership statistics? Population figures in North America for the last 50 years have soared. At the same time membership figures for the Masonic population have dropped. This can only mean that Masons have simply not kept pace with our changing lifestyles. For example, communications technology has exploded—cell phone vs. landline; PC vs. typewriter; e-mail vs. regular mail. While these kinds of changes surround everyone living in a modern world, Freemasons still grouse about any increase in dues or per capita. It is time to readjust our thinking and come to realize that both time and money are necessary factors in creating a quality organization.
With few exceptions over the last several decades, we have been content to listen to excuses, avoiding examination of the complicated set of changes that has weakened Masonry’s relevance to our contemporary lives. Even today, we want to think of “loss of membership” as our major problem. This report argues that membership loss is not the major problem. In fact, our study asks that we shift our thinking to consider our loss of membership as merely a symptom of the problem.
Based upon its study, the Task Force proposes that our core problem is twofold:
This means our fraternity has suffered a loss of Masonic identity as an observable way of life, and our lack of energy invested in Masonry no longer makes the fraternity relevant to our busy contemporary lifestyles.
As Masons we have taken our fraternity’s identity for granted, and we have allowed the general public to forget how important we are to the fabric of society. We forgot that what we DO for each other, our lodges, and ourselves enriches the quality of life for our families and communities. Only recently has Masonry found a new place in popular culture with the introduction of Dan Brown’s book, The DaVinci Code, and the movie, National Treasure. Now we see our public identity positioned in the context of historical fiction. We owe the public more than fiction; we owe them facts, and we owe them our best performance every day.
Members ask the familiar questions such as:
It would be convenient if traditional approaches alone would change the status of Freemasonry in the minds of the general public. However, it would be like trying to convince the public that Pepsi without “fizzy” is just as satisfying. We know that it might be a fine drink, but the truth is—it just wouldn’t be Pepsi.
The Masonic Information Center proposes that Masons must first take ownership of an identity that distinguishes Masonry from other men’s organizations. That is a complex but exciting challenge. It is time to face it; Freemasonry is not an off-the-shelf product whose value can be assessed only in quantifiable terms. One Task Force member reminded the group that Masons are not marketing soap or ketchup. Masonry is a process of lifelong learning and discovery that delivers a way of living a principled life, observable in the simplest behaviors, whether at lodge, at home, or in the workplace.
The task facing Masonry is to define our Masonic identity in a rapidly changing world. The public wants to know:
When we can answer these questions, then we can move forward with traditional programs for public relations, marketing communications, membership, and more.
It is about time that we did something as a fraternity for our fraternity—brother by brother, lodge by lodge.